I didn’t expect much from Discarnate (aka Shapeshifter in some dvd regions), a super low budget supernatural horror I only really watched for Thomas Kretschmann, an actor I greatly admire. The is squarely B grade territory but at least it made a commendable effort and is quite enjoyable, for what it is. Kretschmann, getting to play a good guy and lead role for once, plays a paranormal scientist whose son was once snatched in the night and killed by some kind of terrifying inter-dimensional being. He organizes a sort of scientific seance, using the powers of an untested chemical serum that works on the pineal gland, propelling the perception of whoever takes it partly into the spirit realms that exist within ours, but are usually invisible. He also hires a medium (Nadine Velasquez) to oversee the experiment and a bunch of chatty science undergrads and stages the whole thing in a dilapidated house just outside LA, in hopes to lure this thing back from the netherworld and get some long awaited revenge. Of course the entire thing goes disastrously, the being shows up and starts attacking everyone one by one, messing up the fabric of reality and causing a whole lot of confusion. Problem is, he didn’t inform anyone what’s really going on and they all just think they’re part of a slightly less than routine drug trial, because they’d never have agreed to this other idea, let alone believe him. So everyone but him is totally unprepared for the arrival of this creature, to its advantage. The special effects for this thing are cool, if a bit under-lit. The being is a grotesque, inky black slimy mess of muddy features, gaping orifices and arachnid like physicality, able to change its form and mimic those it devours somewhat, and there’s a folklore based backstory for it I enjoyed too. This isn’t anything memorable or noteworthy but it does make an effort, has a fascinating premise, and the monster is a good one.
In Don Mancini’s Seed Of Chucky, Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly’s demon doll couple unleash their spawn on the world, although the resulting progeny isn’t as… ill adjusted as it’s messed up parents, at least initially anyways. This is the most demented, hilarious film in the canon and although it’s not quite as coherent or witty as Bride before it, still holds second place for me, if on nothing but sheer shock value and WTF pedigree alone. The film blasts off the screen and into the real world, giving Tilly a chance to send up her own slutty image and play herself for a good portion, as she stars in a Chucky iteration and vies desperately for a role as the Virgin Mary in a biblical character study directed, of all people, by hip hop artist Redman, also playing himself. Over in the UK (don’t ask me how it got there) Chucky’s androgynous child (voiced wistfully by Pippin from Lord Of The Rings) has never met his parents until he sees the fake versions on TMZ, journeys to the states and resurrects them for real, so these characters exist for real and fake in the world and it all makes your brain melt a bit. This is a deranged vision, I appreciated Tilly’s willingness to go full bugnuts and make fun of herself very, very savagely. Chucky and Tiffany fight over both the gender and murderous ambitions of their kid, who isn’t sure whether he or she is a he or she and whether he or she wants to be a benign, gentle spirit or a prolific, Fisher-Price mass murderer like mommy and daddy. Got all that? It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re willing to go along for the ride and have some fun, which the films offers in spades, and I haven’t even mentioned John Waters as a sleazebag paparazzi photographer who catches Chucky in, shall we say, a *very* private moment. The franchise has come a far cry from the simple, effective notion of a possessed doll hunting a kid and killing anyone who stands in his way, but the snowball trajectory from that to this mad world, meta, loopy universe chapter of the legacy is something to behold, and of each new interlude, the creative energy, madcap vibes and brazen storytelling of Bride and Seed are my favourite so far. Join me next time when we look at the next two, which couldn’t be more different.
Officer Downe is one of those hyper violent, weirdly sleazy, in your face trashy midnight madness flicks that although I couldn’t in good faith recommend to most people, it definitely leaves an impression on the nervous system, if not altogether frying it to a crisp. Based on a graphic novel, it tells of hotshot inner city cop Officer Downe (Kim Coates), a legendary crime fighter in a borough so ridden with filth and scum it’s amazing the infrastructure hasn’t just completely collapsed. Downe has one key skill in getting his job done: he can’t be killed. Well, he technically can, but each time he’s shot to shreds, eviscerated by explosives or mauled by careening vehicles he’s resurrected in the secret labs below the police precinct using bizarre necromancy and mad science only to fight, die and live all over again. This talent makes him the target of a whole galaxy of increasingly weirder criminal factions including animal mask wearing kingpins called the Fortune 500, a Kung fu supervillain called Zen Master Flash (Sona Eyambe) and a cabal of murderous, voodoo wielding, arms dealing nuns led by the always awesome Alison Lohman, who had prior been laying low for a while and chooses quite the random project in which to make her comeback. Downe is watched over by a team of beat cops hired to babysit and clean up after him, and so the broad, crazy, cacophonous story goes. Coates is a hell of an actor, he’s always been one of my favourites and he tears into this role with a campy ferocity and deadpan humour that’s a lot of fun, plus it’s nice to see a guy like him who has compiled an impressive career in supporting turns get a juicy comic book lead role. At some points it feels like the story is a bit too much about the human cops tailing him, none of whom are interesting characters, when it probably should have been more about him. The film feels like this furiously deranged mix of Sin City, Robocop, Maniac Cop and Hobo With A Shotgun all stuffed in a blender and served up on a shoestring budget, take it or leave it. Many will hate it, it’s wantonly trashy, so silly it’ll melt brains and so hyperkinetic in visual and editing techniques it’ll explode eyeballs, but there’s a feverish manic energy I appreciated, and Coates does give it his all and is clearly having a fuck load of fun in this role.
Ronny Yu’s Bride Of Chucky is the point where the franchise deliberately goes off the rails and reinvents itself into something demented, meta, and completely inspired. Chucky gets a new look here, I mean you can’t really kill the little bastard but his visceral encounter with the wind fan in part 3 has left him quite a sight, all metal stitches, stark patches of sewn on hair and jagged scars adorning his plastic visage. He’s brought back to life by trailer park dwelling mega-psycho ditzy maven Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), an aggressive groupie and former girlfriend of Charles Lee Ray’s, resurrecting him with more voodoo and, once it’s apparent that these two had a more troubling, dysfunctional relationship than Harley Quinn and The Joker, eventually trapped in a female bride doll of her own, bonded to Chucky in kinky rubber wedlock complete with a hilariously sincere sex scene. They hit the road looking to find a secret amulet in Ray’s grave that can give them both human bodies, piggybacking in the van of a teenage runaway couple (Katherine Heigl & Nick Stabile) escaping the girl’s nasty army colonel daddy (the late John Ritter). The plot is framework for one hell of a bunch of kills, jokes, bickering, heavy metal soundtrack choices and dark humour, this is by and far the best film in the canon for me, and Tilly is a big part of why it works so well, she’s the wild card element that turns a well established slasher formula into something that transcends its own blueprint and becomes just… wild. Director Ronny Yu also helmed the awesome Freddy Vs. Jason, another slasher reworking for two legendary franchises that has the same loopy, infectiously fun meta energy, metal music and inventive, vivid flesh and blood opening credit graphic design. The kills are unbelievable and one cheekily references another beloved slasher icon, the gore is cartoonish yet still ruthless and the overall vibe is one of utter devilish revelry. Such a fun time and the harbinger of a new, crazier, bloodier era in the series.
I can’t imagine what a challenge it must be to write, direct and star in your own feature debut, there are so many ways it can go wrong from being just too ambitious an undertaking to a scattershot vanity project, but Carlson Young blasts into the scene with her striking new film The Blazing World, as assured, unique and breathtaking embark on a creative journey in cinema as I’ve ever seen. The film opens with two twin sisters playing in the woods near a lavish house, while their troubled parents (Dermot Mulroney & Vinessa Shaw) have a ferocious domestic dispute within, interrupted by a fatal tragedy befalling one of their daughters, an event that will haunt the family forever and cause the grown up girl (Young) to be propelled in a hallucinatory, surreal, otherworldly voyage into dimensions of the soul and spirit worlds to work through the pain, mental turmoil and anguished memory from that time. This is a strange, disorienting film but Young commands the narrative so that as weird as it gets, it only skirts that realms of outright incomprehensible arthouse tendencies and still has roots in what feels… I don’t want to say ‘commercial’, but let’s go with ‘accessible.’ It’s still bizarre as all hell though, in the best possible way, a vividly prismatic burst of visual inspiration, deep fluttering colours and puzzling, baroque subconscious imagery, I was reminded of Tarsem Singh’s The Cell in both style and structure. As Young’s protagonist arrives for a visit at the family home for the first time in years she finds mom a despairing mess and dad a tornado of alcoholic depression, but that isn’t all she finds. A menacing supernatural stranger played by the one and only Udo Kier appears, beckoning her down a metaphysical rabbit hole into the netherworlds beyond waking life, a constantly shifting dream state of astral projection where she must face the memories that have haunted her for years, confront the tormented dream egos of her parents and even face her own sister eventually. It’s a darkly dazzling journey beyond time, thought and consciousnesses and who better than the always captivating Kier to host it, he rips into this role with a seething, wide eyed malevolence and Young, as both his actor and scene partner, lets him do some wild, intense stuff and go to some places I’ve never seen from him before. The stylistically audacious world she plunges into is brought to life by impossibly detailed production design, like a fine abstract painting with potent life breathed into it, a fearsome, dark fairytale musical score by Isom Innis with some effective classical music choices and incisive, alluring sound design. Young commands it all with unbelievable skill so early in the game, as an actor she has a sensitive heart and smouldering vulnerability hanging on every syllable, completely believable as this character. As a filmmaker she clearly shows she’s in love with her medium and has been influenced by some of the most striking artists, while boldly finding her own voice and presenting a debut that’s overflowing with lush creativity and a strong beating heart which, when you consider the amount of triple-threat labour and creativity has gone into it, is a staggering first time effort. Highly recommended, one of the most unique films this year.
I got a chance to see the original 1973 Wicker Man for the first time recently and it’s every bit the freaky, messed up yet beautifully made folk horror nightmare I’d heard it was, I loved it to pieces. See the thing is the very words ‘wicker’ and ‘man’ put together in a sentence these days just evokes the mental image of Nicolas Cage with a beehive on his face, such is the pop culture absorption and frenzied notoriety of the much spat upon remake which, without going into too much diversion here, I think is actually a really good film. This one is too, in many different ways, it feels like the folk horror benchmark and I can see it’s cultural influence on much horror material in decades to come. It stars The Equalizer himself, Edward Woodward, as a London inspector sent to a wee tiny island off the coast in search of a missing girl, with not much of anything to go on in terms of intel except just that, a missing girl and a name. I’d be suspicious af, but he plows right into their earthen hippie community, pagan customs and frankly downright hilarious pageantry looking royally out of place with his crisp, chromed policeman’s uniform in such a colourful, wreath adorned, elemental backdrop. I enjoyed his ongoing abject horror at the local’s embracement of free love, loose values and rejection of staunch Christianity, the film is very… of its time and those certainly wouldn’t be things anyone would care about today but it’s fascinating to see how much of a big deal narrow-minded Christianity was for a lot of silly people back when. The film of course circles an ending that’s become legendary, where the titular wicker gentleman makes his appearance and everything kind of collectively goes bonkers for a finale that will wake the gods. Christopher Lee is at once amusing, endearing, charismatically sinister and somehow just a bit eccentric as the sort of “homestead regal” Lord Summerisle, the ringleader and pater manifest of this island dwelling bunch of cult loonies, it’s one of his best, and most entertaining performances, especially when he dons a great big wig for the final hoo-hah that is prophetic in a way, as he’d rock the exact same look decades later as Saruman in Lord Of The Rings. This film is a blast, full of strange editing, spooky music and eerie vocals that show up when you least expect them and a terrific ensemble cast that all do a splendid job of scaring the piss out of this poor, buttoned down big city copper with their collective antics, often funny, frequently frightening, consistently off the wall and always just what you’d expect a weird, island-bound, nature worshipping cult to act like. Excellent film.
Child’s Play 3 is the last of the films that focuses primarily on Chucky’s relentless pursuit of Andy’s soul, before the franchise reinvents itself and goes completely cuckoo bananas in the best way possible, but I’m getting ahead of myself. This is a solid entry, taking place a few odd years after the second film, with a teenage Andy (Justin Whalen, with heavy young Eddie Furlong vibes) yanked out of the foster care system and shipped off to military school. Chucky is still somehow back from the dead once again, resurrected in a slick opening credit sequence that features “plastic anatomy regrowth” effects that look like they inspired Brandon Cronenberg for some of the gooier stuff he put into his film Possessor. Now, military school is never a fun place to be in movies and I imagine it wouldn’t be very great in real life either, Andy has it tough because this particular venture is run by a power mad wannabe hairdresser sergeant played by Andy Robinson, who is great at being an absolutely unhinged loony, as we know from his turn as the zodiac killer in Dirty Harry. The rest of his fellow boot campers aren’t so nice either, apart from one girl (Perrey Reeves from Entourage, lovely here) who takes a shine to him until inevitable romantic sparks fly for a winning couple dynamic. Chucky arrives on scene after brutally butchering the amoral CEO of the toy company (Peter Haskell) that made his perennial rubber avatar and promptly but stealthily murders a garbage truck driver, arousing Andy’s suspicions that he’s finally tracked him down once again. The kills here and general arc at the military camp are fun enough, with the eventual villain’s confrontation between him and Robinson’s certifiable big boss a delirious, diabolically suspenseful set piece involving the world’s most disastrous botched straight razor shave. The film kicks into spectacular gear for the finale though, set in a giant abandoned amusement park in the nearby area, a hectic, hallucinatory howl of a showdown complete with underground roller coasters, tons of multicoloured lighting and acres of billowing dry ice, it’s a huge stylistic exhale after the drab visual palette of the military academy and lets Chucky and those trying to end him truly go nuts and play around with space, lighting and effects. It also has a ruthless send-off for this demon dolly involving some sort of giant industrial fan with big sharp blades, it’s a satisfyingly gory final death (of many this little fucker has bounced back from) for him and a nice cap off the last of the “Chucky vs. Andy” films in the canon, before new territories are charted. Great stuff.
Child’s Play 2 picks up not long after the first left off for a sequel that’s similar yet stronger in quite a few ways. Young Andy has been tossed into the foster care system after his mom can’t deal with the memories of their initial encounter with Chucky aka Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), and she has been remanded to a psychiatric facility. His social worker (always nice to see Grace Zabriskie) places him in a well meaning but not properly equipped suburban family with a foster mom (Jenny Agutter) who cares about him and a dad (Gerrit Graham) who is sceptical about his past affecting his mental state living with them. It’s not long before Chucky, resurrected with new spare doll parts in a neat assembly line opening credit sequence, comes looking for him once again, and all hell breaks loose. I felt sad for poor Andy, not only continuously tormented by that little ginger haired fucker, but also as a result now left without his birth mother and forced into the notoriously turbulent US foster care system. The film’s strongest aspect is a sweet, life affirming relationship he has with the family’s other adopted kid Kyle (Christine Elise) who takes him under her wing in a big sister capacity and looks out for him. It’s a believable, compassionate arc for both and they get an absolutely ferocious final battle with Chucky in the toy factory he came from, complete with all kinds of mangling machinery, buckets of oozing practical gore and melted plastic effects and a surge of climactic energy. This is an improvement on the already spectacular first film, especially so for me due to the affecting dynamic between Andy and Kyle, some rip snortin set pieces (I laughed hard when Chucky gets launched through a windshield at top speed) and more of the same manic, diabolically mischievous energy that only Brad Dourif as this character can bring us. Good times.
Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is one continuous bad dream in the best possible way, a chilly European nightmare that begins with a couple (Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie) losing their young daughter in a drowning accident and the subsequent mental trauma, bad luck and eerie visions that plague them one year later as he works to restore a Venice church for a malevolent Bishop (Massimo Serato) who notices his strange behaviour and she refuses to let go, taking up with three odd clairvoyant sisters who can apparently communicate with the dead. This is a moody piece to its very bones, the story itself could be told in several clipped beats or so but the real substance lies in the moments in between dialogue, the spectral apparitions they see running about the cluttered, labyrinthine Venice streets and their collective inability to let go of their shared tragedy manifested in the physical realm as terrifying apparitions. We sense this pain lingering over them both in a sex scene that is too strange to describe, a montage of sorts that feels sweet and awkward and carnal in a primordial sort of way, like a Lite version of the ferocious, voodoo tinged Mickey Rourke & Lisa Bonet sex scene in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, but no less unsettling and otherworldly. There’s a subplot about a serial killer in a little red jacket running loose, a jacket that looks suspiciously like the same one their kid was wearing when she drowned, which doesn’t help their overall mental state and provides one of the most frightening, heart attack inducing scenes I’ve ever seen in horror. Sutherland and Christie are both phenomenal here, the former adopting a feverish workaholic denial to avoid facing his pain and the latter stuck in a hyper-emotional terrain of manic and depressive episodes, hopeless hills and valleys of grief, confusion and despair. Venice has never looked more menacing here, the edifices, ancient structures and sentinel churches standing austere watch over these two lost souls, like a meticulously carved dream world of chilly fog, dead ends and kaleidoscopic stained glass backdrops. I can see why this has become such a classic and gone on to influence so many other great artists in horror pop culture, I can imagine everyone from David Lynch to the creators of Silent Hill were inspired. Dark, brooding, atmospheric meditation on loss and grief shot through the disorienting, beautiful and frighting prism of a ghost story, absolutely great film.
So I’ve been marathoning the Chucky movies for the first time lately and oh my god what a balls out franchise. I’ll start with the first, Tom Holland’s Child’s Play from 1988, because this series starts out slowly, modestly and gradually builds to such a fever pitch extravaganza of meta goofiness and deranged, Joe Dante level lunacy it has me giddy. Everyone knows the story of the first by now: Chicago serial killer Charles Lee Ray (the inimitable, legendary Brad Dourif) is gunned down by a ferocious police detective (Chris Sarandon, always awesome) in a toy factory, but not before using dark voodoo to transfer his soul into a Good Guy doll, which runs about the city on a murderous rampage, eventually finding his way to the home of young Andy (Alex Vincent, adorable), where he proceeds to make life hell for him and his mom (Catherine Hicks). Dourif is key to what makes this character work so well that we’ve gotten as many sequels as we have, I’ve rarely seen an actor do more with his voice, give more dimension, dark humour and genuine malice from behind a recording booth, but this is Dourif we’re talking about after all, this man can pretty much do anything. The first film is a great introduction into the franchise, a series that if anything gets better and better with each sequel, which is really rare in horror but sometimes does happen. The film benefits from Sarandon who is always a rugged, charismatic presence, switching up his evil vampire character in director Tom Holland’s other seminal horror classic Fright Night for a good guy role here, albeit one that’s very rough around the edges, and better for it. It’s fun watching him square off against Chucky and there is one hell of a fiery climax complete with ooey-gooey melting/burning plastic effects and a tirade of madness from the doll and Dourif that is genuinely scary, as far as killer dolls go. Stay tuned for my thoughts on each and every film in this franchise, because they are all gems, and you don’t often get that level of consistency and improvement on quality in slasher franchises.